Sunday, August 19, 2007

Infinity and beyond

When TK got to "Pick 3" on the radio, she focused on songs that changed her opinions of music genres she thought she didn't like. That was pretty cool, and very admirably open-minded.

I'm coming to the realization that I need to change my attitude towards science fiction. Watching Firefly and Futurama proved that there are some series I can like, at least in the arena of television. Most recently, the Library suggested I might like the works of award-winning sci-fi author Connie Willis; and the two books of hers that I found are not what I've ever though of as science fiction. Maybe her other books have my stereotypes of cyborgs and spaceships and exploding planets, but the two I read didn't at all. Hence my confusion and delight.

Bellwether was a quick and humorous read; but it was a thinly disguised, extremely tame, nerdy romance story between a sociologist who studies fads and group behavior and is focusing on the 1920s (practically my senior thesis -- how cool is that?) and a biologist trying to find the cause of chaos. They team up to go after a science grant; hilarity and wackiness ensues as they try to find common research ground between group behavior in humans and behavior transmission in general. It's really a very cute story, but for me the cool part was all the little tidbits about fads throughout history, and little anecdotes about how famous scientists made their discoveries and had major breakthoughs. The whole point was that in both the social sciences and the, uh, "hard" sciences, the best results are often never planned. But aside from answering taking huge liberties with some questions and answers in chaos theory, it didn't seem like something I'd consider to be "science fiction."

Willis' Doomsday Book was the complete opposite. Where Bellwether was a short, light story filled with hope and wit and humor and sarcasm and nerd love, Doomsday Book was really long, serious, and had nothing but gloom, despair, and death. The book takes place in Oxfordshire: in 2054, a time-travelling research team of historians thinks it sends a student back in time to 1320 but discovers she has really been sent to 1348, the year the plague reached Oxford. Meanwhile, there's an outbreak of an unidentified virus in 2054, and NHS quarantines Oxford. So in both the 2054 and 1348 storylines, the reader is besieged by an epidemic and the panic and hysteria each outbreak causes. In both story arcs, everybody dies (or most do, anyway...) It's an incredible portrait of how death, panic, and fear of the unknown are somehow timeless, and how moments of compassion and caring can shine through. But naturally, it's extremely dreary and depressing.

Willis doesn't paint a quaint picture of Ye Olde 14th-century England, with cute little villages, lovable peasants, ladies in waiting, or knights jousting; she depicts it as it would have been for most, with rare bathing and lice and rotting teeth and rotting food and ... then the Black Death. Willis is also pretty creative with the futuristic technology; for instance, a translator implant enables the 21st-century student to speak to people in the 14th.

It's so well-written, and so captivating, and even though it's pretty long I couldn't put it down. It was also fun because in the field of History there's a friendly academic rivalry between Medievalists and Modernists, and that definitely came through in the book.

But here too, I wouldn't have classified Doomsday Book as science fiction. I guess in some way I don't really think of time travel or "tales from the future" as necessarily science fiction. (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court would have to qualify, and something in me just thinks Mark Twain wouldn't identify with the sci-fi genre.)

Maybe I just don't like classifying things. Maybe I just don't like the word "science," having been holed up in "humanities" forever. But maybe I need to throw out my preconceived notions that a genre is strict and fixed --after all, I always rave about interdisciplinary approaches, why not an inter-genre or supra-genre reading approach? At any rate, I've decided I really like these two vastly different books from a widely recognized science fiction writer.

Now, where can I get a Star Trek costume...?

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